Mystery shrouds death of 11 people who consumed temple food in Karnataka

Police confirm that the symptoms of the patients are consistent with poisoning through organophosphate,a common pesticide. Samples of the food have been sent for analysis.

INDIA Updated: Dec 15, 2018 20:16 IST

Vikram Gopal
Vikram Gopal
Sulawadi (Karnataka)
Eleven people died and around 90 are in hospital, with the condition of many, including around 10 children, critical after eating food served at the Kicchugathi Maramma temple. (HT Photo)

A posse of policemen sits in the shade, keeping an eye on the people gathered in front of the unimposing structure of the Kicchugathi Maramma temple. On farmland opposite the temple, three forest officials are trying to manage a crowd gathered to see the carcasses of dead crows, around 20 of them.

This is the scene at Sulawadi, 200 km from Bengaluru, a day after 11 people died after eating food served at the temple. Around 90 are in hospital, with the condition of many, including around 10 children, critical. The crows died when they ate the food that was thrown away. By Saturday afternoon, Sulwadi has become a magnet for people from neighbouring villages.

Police confirm that the symptoms of the patients are consistent with poisoning through organophosphate,a common pesticide. Samples of the food have been sent for analysis.

Japamalai, a former gram panchayat member of the village, which is located 5 km from the Tamil Nadu border, stands at the centre of the clearing in front of the temple, eager to tell all the outsiders about the politics of the village, which he believes is at the heart of the tragedy, and others pitch in to fill the gaps.

According to them, tensions flared up in the village over the control of the temple, highly revered in the area. It is one of the temples that believers of the Om Shakti cult visit on the way to Melmaruvathur in Tamil Nadu, which has traditions much like the Sabarimala temple, including vows of purity that range from one week to 48 days.

Chinnappi, one of five persons taken in for questioning, was the chief trustee of the temple and nurtured ambitions of building a new dome for the temple. This was opposed by Immadi Mahadeva Swamy, “who also wished to have control of the trust”, Japamalai said. Many claim it was this fight that led to one faction adding pesticide in the food.

On Friday, Chinnappi held a small feast for about 100 people as part of a stone laying ceremony for the construction of the new dome. Among those who were present at the time were a large number of Om Shakti devotees who were passing by and decided to partake of the meal.

Around 20 crows died when they ate the food that was thrown away. (HT Photo)

Murugappa, one of the locals, said there was a foul smell in the food, but people continued to eat it. “Only a few of us threw the food away because there is a belief that you can’t refuse temple food.”

The only problem with this conspiracy theory is that the three cooks ate the food and are in hospital. Dharmender Singh Meena, Superintendent of Police for the district, said the three, Eeranna, Lokesh and Puttaswamy are in critical condition in a hospital in Mysuru.

Puttaswamy’s daughter Anita died after consuming the food, he added. “While it is almost certain at this point that there was poisoning we cannot be sure if there was criminal intent involved because the cooks have taken ill,” Meena said.

Indeed, locals at Sulawadi find it hard to understand how the food could have been poisoned. The kitchen is located behind the temple, where the trust has built a shelter for devotees who wished to rest there. All three cooks were on the payroll of the temple trust for years, Japamalai said.

Japamalai and Murugappa said the trouble began around 1 pm when some people complained of feeling sick. “Soon, people were throwing up on the side of the road and others just fell down,” Murugappa said.

About 40 km from Sulawadi, a large group of people have gathered at the government hospital in Hanur town, waiting to collect the body of Shantaraju, a Dalit from nearby Bidarahalli, who was at the temple as part of the Om Shakti devotees’ group.

Nagaraj, Shantaraju’s brother-in-law, asks his other relatives who gathered at the spot to sit down for a flash protest. “We will not leave this place till the accused is produced in front of us and we are allowed to dispense justice,” he says, before the policemen present at the spot calm him down.

Currently, 93 people are undergoing treatment at various hospitals in Mysuru, the minister in charge of the district, C Puttarangashetty said. “It is clear that there is foul play involved and we have asked the police to bring the guilty to book at the soonest,” he said. Of the 93, 29 are said to be in a critical condition.

The police are awaiting the results of tests conducted by the forensics lab in Mysuru to see if it throws up any more clues. “At present, we are questioning five people, Chinnappi, Mahadesha, Mahadeva and two others, whose identities cannot be revealed at this moment,” Meena said. “We have sent viscera and food samples to the forensics lab and I personally asked them to expedite the process,” he added.

Karnataka Chief minister HD Kumaraswamy announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each for the families of the deceased.


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